Several decades into Virginia’s booming post-Prohibition wine economy, we are starting to home in on some special vineyard sites throughout the state. In France, you’ll find heavily protected and coveted Grand Cru and Premier Cru sites; in other wine-centric countries you’ll find similar infrastructures protecting the best vineyards. What sites are emerging as Virginia’s equivalent to Grand Cru vineyards?
A straightforward answer is much more elusive than you might think, because the question is being asked, perhaps, a bit too early. Learning the land takes time because agriculture takes time. The search for quality in the wine business is an especially drawn-out process because, though grapes are an annual product, a grape vine plant has a similar lifespan to a human, and grape vine roots can take decades to reach the depth and maturity they need to truly express their place. Only when the vines are echoing their environment can the influence of special sites shine their truest. This clarity of site quality can take decades and generations to discover. You just can’t rush it.
Broaching the topic of “best sites” with some of Virginia’s top wine minds often draws a certain measure of recoil.
“I’d say for the most part that we are so young as an industry that most of our best sites are unplanted and yet to be discovered,” says Early Mountain Vineyards’ Ben Jordan. “I’m not the first to say so, but I think the best is yet to come.”
As the industry grows into its next phase, it’s helpful to revisit some vineyards that seem to have that “special something” in the hopes that we can glean a bit of experiential knowledge and new plantings may be aimed at great sites. Even at this early juncture, here are a few places that consistently give up superior fruit.
Ankida Ridge (above)
“There are a few characteristics that make Ankida Ridge a great site for growing quality wine grapes,” says winemaker Nathan Vrooman. “The elevation and relative altitude of the vineyard allow for excellent drainage of cold air, which helps to mitigate our risk for spring frost.” Additionally, the slope of the vineyard, combined with the loose rocky soil, allows for water drainage, so the plants are forced to send their roots deeper into the ground. Being on a mountainside, there’s almost constant air movement, so the plants and the fruit tend to dry very quickly, which results in lighter fungal pressures.
Barboursville winemaker Luca Paschina is always reevaluating his vineyard blocks for the highest quality material to make his Octagon blend. Among the vineyard’s 900 acres, there is a particular area that the wine team has designated “santa,” as if holy. For the past 18 years, it has been producing, with almost impeccable consistency, its prized Merlot, which is the starting block of the winery’s Octagon blend.
“Many elements make the block special,” Paschina says, “starting from the medium vigor red clay soil to the gradually steep slope facing to the east, which allows for a nice early morning dew-drying sun and for a cooling during the late summer afternoons.”
Michael Shaps Wineworks
For Michael Shaps, who produces wine from grapes grown on various properties, three special vineyards stick out in his mind: Carter Mountain for its Cabernet Franc, the Gordonsville’s Honah Lee Vineyard for its Petit Manseng and Loudoun County’s Wild Meadow vineyard for its Chardonnay.
“What makes Wild Meadow so special is not one particular variable, but how all the elements come together,” Shaps says. “The soil is lighter, loamier with less clay and with good drainage. But that in conjunction with the slope, exposure and its northern Virginia location, which provides cooler nighttime temps during the critical last two weeks of ripening, help to produce very balanced chemistry, which in wine vocab means fresh fruit.”
Winemaker Michael Heny is impressed with the Viognier from Berry Hill Vineyard, just outside of Washington, D.C., where Dennis Horton started the Viognier story in Virginia. “Year-in, year-out, it continues to prove itself,” Heny says. “The vineyard isn’t immune to frost, but it’s never severe. Hail strikes from time to time but the vines bounce back. We get hot, we get cold, we get dry, we get wet, with a procession of various insects entering and exiting the stage. The vines take it all in stride, dependably delivering lug after lug after lug of beautifully golden ripened fruit.”
Emily Pelton, winemaker at Veritas, loves the new vineyards her family has planted. She works mainly with the vineyards from Veritas’ first plantings in 1999, but says the newer ones—planted in the last four years—are quickly gaining her favor.
“We cleared 30-odd acres on the top of our ‘saddleback’ and we have planted it to Viognier and Cabernet Franc,” she says. “I think it may be the promise of the future that makes my heart skip a beat every time I visit these vineyards, or it may be the view, I’m not sure. This vineyard would be my first site that has considerable elevation and gorgeous aspect. Fingers crossed!”
Jake Busching Wines
Winemaker Jake Busching is currently focusing on 800- to 1,000-foot elevation sites with clay-based soil: Honah Lee, Carter Mountain and Wild Meadow and similar vineyards that are slowly being tuned in vintage after vintage.
“Monticello reds and Northern Virginia whites stand out to me, just as the Shenandoah Valley has so much to offer,” Busching says. “But like all of the sites, we need more time to suss it all out. We are headed into greatness. Patience seems like our best ally.”
While we are clearly far from drawing an official map that guides people toward the best vineyard sites, we are rushing into a third wave of Virginian wine investment. “We have so much yet to explore, so many places to dig and find hope for the future of our craft,” says Busching. “We are infants in an old world of wine and dirt.”
Erin Scala is the sommelier at Fleurie and Petit Pois. She holds the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, is a Certified Sake Specialist and writes about beverages on her blog, thinking-drinking.com.